Fig trees, Vineyards, Curses, and Parables…..

Just pondering this morning…       


“The one who guards a fig tree will eat its fruit, and whoever protects their master will be honored” Proverbs 27:18 


I have used this article on The Mystery of the Bad Fig Tree by Erin Gieschen as a conversation starter in classes about Jesus’ emotions, particularly his anger, as part of our program’s Emotional Literacy class.  


But today, as I read this key scripture in Proverbs 27:18, I was curious about whether or not the writer of the article on the mystery of the bad fig tree had included this OT reference to guarding a fig tree in the discussion of Jesus’ actions with regard to this particular fig tree and the lessons he was teaching the disciples in it.  


In the NIV Bible translation used in the article, neither in the Matthew 21 version nor in the Mark 11 version, is this Proverb cited.  Curious.  Yet in the Matthew 21 version, I see a clear relevance to the context of Jesus’ activity and statements in regard to the fig tree and the   


The Mystery of the Bad Fig Tree 

…………..And it’s baffling but brilliant parable                                         


by Erin Gieschen   


I have a confession to make.

There’s a story in the gospels of Matthew and Mark that I’ve always secretly hated. This is how it goes: Jesus is hungry, and then because there’s no fruit on a fig tree He inspects, He kills it.

Jesus was compassionate when others weren’t, wise beyond all human wisdom, shockingly self-sacrificing, and so on. But when it came to certain fig trees, He just seemed to act . . . well, a bit off-kilter. Of course He knew what He was doing, but as I was absolutely clueless, I just conveniently avoided the story.

But then I listened. I hadn’t consumed huge chunks of the Bible for a long time, and when I heard Matthew and Mark performed on CD (The Bible Experience) in almost one shot, my eyes were opened to a completely new view of Jesus’ real ministry and the wonderfully brilliant way He did things—including (shockingly!) the cursing of a fig tree.

One Strange Story

Let’s revisit the story in Matthew 21 and Mark 11. On the way to Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus and His disciples come across a fig tree in full leaf. Jesus checks it for fruit but finds none. So He curses it, as in “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” Is the tree a moral being? What’s going on here? Is the Son of God losing His temper and flinging around His Creator-power at a silent, harmless plant? (Poor tree, I always secretly thought. Why would He condemn it when “it was not yet the season for figs”? I mean, how unfair! Give the tree a break.)

At first, the disciples seem to have no idea what’s going on. Maybe Jesus is showing them how to curse food items that don’t work right. Or, in their zealous frame of mind, maybe they thought, Awesome! Jesus is flexing His power again! That’ll show you, tree. Just wait—pretty soon we’ll be calling fire down on those cursed Romans. Yesss! 

Later, they return on the same road and see that the cursed tree is totally withered. Wow! Jesus killed the tree with a word! He raises the dead to life, changes one substance (H2O) into another completely different creation (wine). Now He goes and kills trees—this was big stuff!

It all seems completely baffling to the average reader, but if we consider the key to this enacted parable—its context—we can get a powerful picture of what Jesus was actually doing. The first thing we might notice is this: The fig tree is both foreword and epilogue of His monumental “cleansing” of the temple, in which He drives out those who were making a sacred place into a marketplace. But the strange episode also follows a long successive line of stories about the difference between the disciples’ worldly picture of greatness and the true authority and mission of Jesus. When you read (or hear) them all together, a running theme elegantly emerges.

The Before-and-After

First, here’s a little scientific/geographical fact that the disciples would have known: When the season for figs came around (June), the tree would be full of leaves. Yet this was Passover, in early spring, and the leaves on other fig trees would only be starting to come out. So this particular tree was odd—showing all the signs of bearing fruit impressively early, while in reality bearing no fruit. You could say it was a deceptive tree, claiming to be exceptional but having nothing of worth to show when made to account for its boast. Jesus exposed the tree as a fraud: it appeared extraordinary while actually doing nothing extraordinary whatsoever.

This was a “parable” indeed. Its context, along with the theme of the Lord’s recent teachings (culminating in the temple storming) points toward a very visual story He was telling to reveal a crucial truth.

Before this incident, He had been giving the disciples ongoing lessons about servanthood and greatness. They’d been caught up in their own visions of what He would do: break the oppressive rule of Rome and then set up His kingdom on earth (with them ruling alongside Him). What could possibly be better? It just had to be God’s will for everyone to accept Him as Messiah, and for society to be transformed! Jesus saw their hearts, and patiently corrected them again and again: in His kingdom, the world’s idea of significance is turned upside-down. Servanthood, humility, caring for the weak, and childlike open-heartedness are of the greatest value. Spiritual posturing, self-righteousness, and pride will keep you out of this kingdom. And the fig tree is yet another lesson about this truth.

Also prior to the scene was Jesus’ triumphal entry—another picture of the people’s misconstrued ideas. Many expected Him to unveil His campaign plot of miraculous military might, crowning Himself the ultimate king. Yet the Messiah instead worked by His own unforgettable methods, revealing His power by exposing a fraudulent fig—and then audaciously reclaiming the temple as His “Father’s House.”

Jesus was saying this: We can put up a pristine façade, but God sees us. That is bad news to those who would deny their need of healing, but good news for those who acknowledge their weakness. Just as the apostle Paul later said, without love, all the zealous acts of ministry we do for God are hollow (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Jesus is making this very point: He will personally check our branches for real fruit, and if He finds none in spite of extraordinarily pretty leaves boasting of “service” in His name, He will expose us. Yet we can take heart in knowing that His rebukes are always intended to shine a light for the purpose of revelation. So, even for the worst of us Pharisees, a holy exposure can lead to the gift that Jesus is always offering: redemption.


Matthew 21

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.

If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to the Daughter of Zion, `See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'” [1] 

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.

They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna [2] to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” [3] “Hosanna [4] in the highest!”


When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”


The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”


Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.


“It is written,” he said to them, “My house will be called a house of prayer,' </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">[</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">5</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">]</span><span style="font-weight: 400;"> but you are making it aden of robbers.’ [6]


The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.


But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.


“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “`From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’ [7] ?”


And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.


Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.


Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.


When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.


Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.


If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”


Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”


Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.


John’s baptism–where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, From heaven,' he will ask,Then why didn’t you believe him?’


But if we say, `From men’–we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”


So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.


“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, `Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’


“`I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.


“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, `I will, sir,’ but he did not go.


“Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.


For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.


“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.


When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.


“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.


Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.


Last of all, he sent his son to them. `They will respect my son,’ he said.


“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, `This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’


So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.


“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”


“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”


Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “`The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone [8] ; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’ [9] ?


“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.


He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” [10] 


When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.


They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

  1. [5] Zech. 9:9
  2. [9] A Hebrew expression meaning “Save!” which became an exclamation of praise; also in verse 15
  3. [9] Psalm 118:26
  4. [9] A Hebrew expression meaning “Save!” which became an exclamation of praise; also in verse 15
  5. [13] Isaiah 56:7
  6. [13] Jer. 7:11
  7. [16] Psalm 8:2
  8. [42] Or cornerstone
  9. [42] Psalm 118:22,23
  10. [44] Some manuscripts do not have verse 44.


Mark 11

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples,

saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here.

If anyone asks you, Why are you doing this?' tell him,The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.'”

They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it,

some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?”

They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go.

When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it.

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields.

Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! [1] ” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” [2] 


“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest!”


Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.


The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.


Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.


Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.


On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,


and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.


And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations' </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">[</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">3</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">]</span><span style="font-weight: 400;"> ? But you have made ita den of robbers.’ [4]


The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.


When evening came, they [5] went out of the city.


In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.


Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”


“Have [6] faith in God,” Jesus answered.


“I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.


Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.


And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. [7]


They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him.


“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”


Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.


John’s baptism–was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!”


They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, From heaven,' he will ask,Then why didn’t you believe him?’


But if we say, `From men’….” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)


So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

  1. [9] A Hebrew expression meaning “Save!” which became an exclamation of praise; also in verse 10
  2. [9] Psalm 118:25,26
  3. [17] Isaiah 56:7
  4. [17] Jer. 7:11
  5. [19] Some early manuscripts he
  6. [22] Some early manuscripts If you have
  7. [25] Some manuscripts sins. [26] But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your sins.


Timeline for the Story’s Context in Matthew 21: 


Who is the Greatest? Me, Right?

The disciples have a juvenile argument over which of them will be “the greatest” in Jesus’ kingdom (kingdom as defined by them, of course.) Jesus confronts them, picks up a child, and says that when they give their attention to the lowliest, they’re welcoming Him (Mark 9:33-37).

FAMOUS QUOTE: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Leave Him Alone and Cut the Self-Righteousness 

John, the Beloved Disciple, smugly reports to Jesus on someone driving out demons in His name—a person whom the disciples told “to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus tells them to change their attitudes toward outsiders, and warns them of losing their “saltiness” (9:38-50).

FAMOUS QUOTE: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Jesus Exalts the Children—Again

Piously trying to protect Jesus from wasting His valuable time, the disciples try to chase away the pesky kids who are clamoring for His attention. Indignant, Jesus repeats Himself, and this time is tougher: “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (10:11-16).

FAMOUS QUOTE: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

The Rich Young Religious Man

A man who’s piously kept the Law since childhood wants to know what more he should do to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus sees his heart and lovingly offers freedom from what keeps him in bondage: his wealth. When told to sell his possessions to help the poor and then follow Jesus, the man leaves in disappointment because he knows he can’t give up what rules him (10:17-31).

FAMOUS QUOTE: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. With man this is impossible, but not with God.”

The Audacious Request of James and John

As if they didn’t just hear Jesus repeat Himself over and over about true “greatness,” the zealous brothers tell Jesus they want Him to do for them “whatever we ask”—that is, give them dibs on the thrones on either side of Him when He sets up His kingdom (after overthrowing the Roman Empire, of course). Jesus tells them they’re completely clueless—and unprepared for the suffering that comes with His true mission. The other disciples (as if they never thought about the throne set-up themselves) hear about this and get steaming mad. So Jesus repeats Himself again (10:35-45).

FAMOUS QUOTE: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant . . . For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Crowds Hail Jesus as the King Who Will Reclaim David’s Throne (and overthrow Rome, of course).

Jesus enters Jerusalem on a symbolic colt. Meanwhile His followers and throngs of people wave palm branches and lay their cloaks before Him in expectation of the dramatic messianic display of power they have been waiting for (11:1-11).

FAMOUS QUOTE: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”


Jesus Wreaks Havoc on Money Changers in the Temple Jesus storms into the court of the Gentiles, where greedy merchants are overcharging outsiders, women, and the poor for sacrificial animals. He overturns tables and bars merchandise from the temple, passionately proclaiming it as a place of worship. The religious leaders start plotting to kill Him, because the crowd was awed by His authority (11:15-19).

FAMOUS QUOTE: “Is it not written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of thieves.”


*All Scripture is from the NIV Bible.

12/12/19  CBB